Originally published Dec. 22, 2014
“A Southern Baptism,” Detroit Publishing Co., ca 1900. Library of Congress.
One of the reasons I stopped working on my memoir was because when an agent strongly suggested I adapt my essay collection into a linear narrative, I couldn’t make my story fit into a traditional story arch. The most satisfying stories reveal a change from beginning to end, either in the protagonist or the situation, and I couldn’t find a meaningful change. Sure, I was older at the point that I thought would be the end of the story, and by that time I had put an adjective (feminist) in front of the values and ideologies I had been living for some time, but nothing about me was different. From beginning to end, I remained single, in a battle with my body, sexually diffident, and Christian.
The year that is barreling to a close has made it clear that one of the above is morphing. Between my developing research interests, my disengagement from church, and the disappointments that began in April, the conflicting feelings I already had about Christianity have become increasingly uncomfortable. I attend church once a month or less. I read the Bible no further than the verse on Daily Bible app. I wouldn’t call my rare conversations with God prayer. I don’t bless my food. In fact, when a man I met on Match.com took my hand at dinner to bless our food, I was startled, partly because he cursed like a sailor and I thought his blessing action incongruous with his speech, but mainly because I never say grace anymore. I’m not offended that he did. I’m just aware that I don’t.
I’m also aware (as I was at the previously proposed end of my memoir) that I don’t believe the same things about sex that I used to—even though that belief hasn’t translated into free love or bedroom confidence or unbridled passion or attempts to try anything I might find in a Cosmo magazine article or a partner to try them with—and more importantly, that I don’t want to pass those former beliefs down to my next generation. Last night I checked out the profile of a guy who had winked at me on Match. He had written “God,” “a relationship with Christ has to be the center for anything to work,” “equally yoked,” “The Five Love Languages,” and “Bible,” to describe some of the things that were important to him. And further down, included under the headline, “You should message me if:”
You are willing to abstain from sex until marriage (This is probably the deal breaker for many, but I know what I want and will not settle).
Presuming the engagement wouldn’t be very long ’cuz I’m trying to have kids here, I could do that. I’ve never had good sex and don’t know how to, so waiting means I’m not judged in that way, and whenever I actually have a libido again, a return to the battery operated boyfriend isn’t romantic or preferable, but it’s tolerable and reliable. But one of the reasons I’ve never had good sex and don’t know how to is because I was so afraid and ashamed of sexuality for so long, partly because I thought I had to abstain from sex until marriage to please God. I refuse to raise kids to think that way, and I’m not willing to be with someone who does.
And it’s moments like that blessing at dinner and looking at a profile that lead me to ask: What makes for a suitable mate when your beliefs and therefore you are in transition? Fifteen, ten, five years ago, maybe even November of 2013, the second man’s profile would have made me swoon. Today it’s, “Add that to the list of things I don’t want.” But what is “that?” Just his views on premarital sex? I mean, maybe he doesn’t believe that without abstinence it’s impossible to please God. Maybe he’s had a lot of partners and wants marital sex to be new for reasons other than signatures on a marriage license and an exchange of rings, in which case he wouldn’t necessarily be into teaching our children that their bodies are scary and sinful. So then, what if “that” is his religion all together?
Despite the “Black Church” lay congregation (and that of churches in general) disproportionately having been the domain of women for more than 100 years and the odds of heterosexual folk finding each other there are slim, for many years, I was convinced I had to have a man who was not only Christian, but church-going and growing in Christ daily. It was possible, I was sure. God wouldn’t want me unequally yoked with a non-Christian or with a Christian who hadn’t been in the church all his life. Today, I don’t want an atheist, but I also don’t want a Christian who believes the way we’re supposed to: as a little child, without question. He doesn’t have to write scholarly papers on Christianity’s influence on idealized Black womanhood in the U.S.—that was pretty much my final paper this semester—but this kind of womanist thought isn’t going away, and he would have to respect that it may become a part of my spirituality.
A part. In other words, the end of the memoir hasn’t quite changed. I’m still a Christian, and I’m not sure I’ll ever leave the religion or the church. Just how embedded Christianity is within my identity became clear to me when I wrote my response to former Southeast Christian Church pastor Bob Russell’s paternalistic and privilege-filled post, “Hand’s Up. Don’t Shoot.” I was shocked by how much Christianity, how much black liberation theology, it incited within me. If I I’m that skeptical of the scriptures, if I’m not into Christianity anymore, why am I so pissed off when the Word is used as a tool of oppression? Just chalk it all up as a hoax and be done with it, right?
It’s not so easy to walk away. Jesus is kind of like that weird stalker ex who just won’t leave you alone and who makes you think, “Maybe. If this had gone this way instead of that way, or if we could just get this part right, or add that, maybe this relationship would work.” Which means yes, Jesus and I could still hang out. But not without change.